Berlusconi vents fury at wife

ROME: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi demanded an apology Monday from his wife for her public complaints over his roving eye and said their stormy marriage was heading for divorce.

"Veronica must apologise publicly," the 72-year-old Berlusconi told Corriere della Sera newspaper as he went on the offensive in the couple's public row.

"And I don't know if that will be enough," he said after press reports that Veronica Lario now wants a divorce from the billionaire media baron.

Lario, a 52-year-old former actress, last week issued an open letter complaining over reports that Berlusconi was considering a string of young women with no political experience to stand for his centre-right party in European Union elections in June.

One is a former Miss Italy contestant.

"It's the third time she's done this to me in the middle of an election campaign. It's too much," the flamboyant premier told the daily.

Asked whether the near 19-year marriage could survive, Berlusconi said: "I don't think so. I don't know if I want it to this time."

With a huge divorce settlement all but certain, the Italian press has begun totting up the Berlusconi family's complex fortune built from a modest construction company into a sprawling media empire estimated by Forbes to be worth some 6.5 billion dollars (4.5 billion euros).

Berlusconi's Fininvest empire includes three television channels teeming with game shows and soap operas featuring scantily clad starlets.

The couple, who have three children, are rarely seen in public together, while Berlusconi is a bon vivant known for his stamina at late-night dinner parties.

Lario was angry that her husband attended the 18th birthday party in Naples last week for the blonde daughter of a business associate, media reports said. She noted that he never went to any of his own children's coming-of-age parties.

"My marriage is over. I can't stay with someone who cavorts with minors," Lario was quoted as saying by a friend.

"I read in the papers about how he has been hanging around a minor -- because he must have known her before she was 18 -- and how she called him 'Grandpa' and about their meetings in Rome and Milan.

"How can I stay with such a man?" she was quoted as saying in La Stampa.

Berlusconi hit back, telling the same newspaper: "Madam says I'm running around with 17-year-old girls. It's an assertion I cannot allow. I am friends with her father, that's all. I swear."

In January 2007, Berlusconi issued a public apology to Lario after she learned through the press of his verbal dalliance with a young lawmaker.

"Please forgive me, and take this public testimony ... as an act of love, one among many," the one-time cruise ship crooner said after Lario wrote to the daily La Repubblica demanding his contrition, which she said he had failed to show in private.

Speaking to La Stampa, Berlusconi said he was "worried and disappointed" this time.

"I've stayed on in a difficult situation out of love for the children, but now it's over," said Berlusconi, who also has two children from his first marriage. "I can't accept that she wound up going to the newspapers."

The public divorce row is a rare spectacle in Italy. "It's an unprecedented public outpouring," said political scientist Mario Tarchi. "Before, you didn't even know if leaders had wives or children, if they were divorced or not."

Tarchi's colleague Marc Lazar said he doubted whether a second divorce, even in conservative, predominantly Catholic Italy, will hurt Berlusconi.

"This story might upset part of his electorate -- practising Catholics -- (but) his popularity rests on other things," Lazar said.

"Anyway, the election campaign will make people forget all that. He's going to start making sharp attacks against the left in the next hours or days," Lazar told AFP.

Tarchi agreed: "People are used to (Berlusconi's) macho attitude and even approve of it to some degree, including some women."

Lario's remarks about cavorting with minors "doesn't sit well ahead of the elections," he said. "But it won't do anything for the left."